The ripple effect of Sir Alex Ferguson’s extraordinary career in football management is well documented: many of his former players have become coaches, often achieving great success in their own right. Only a couple of weeks ago Gary Neville was appointed to a big managerial job in Spain.
But it is not only those pursuing a career in football management who have gained from working with this sporting giant – at least one school is reaping the benefits, too.
Lee Gardner was a young player during Sir Alex’s trophy-laden time at Aberdeen in the 1980s. After his football days, he turned to teaching and is depute headteacher at North Ayrshire’s Garnock Academy, where his former manager’s “revolutionary” techniques are “probably the biggest influence” on his career.
Mr Gardner started training with Aberdeen in 1981, aged 11, before taking a full-time contract at 16, and remembers his manager’s personal touch. “He would come in each morning and make sure everybody was alright, always have a bit of banter – you never felt isolated or that nobody was looking after you. His interpersonal skills and awareness were second to none,” says Mr Gardner.
Sir Alex, in addition to his coaching duties, effectively took on a role akin to that of guidance teachers, instinctively knowing who needed an arm around the shoulder and who warranted sterner treatment. Mr Gardner believes that, like Sir Alex, school leaders must adopt different personas to get the best out of everyone.
Mr Gardner is a former principal PE teacher and believes that the values he learned from the legendary Manchester United manager helped his department set up many pupils for life, particularly those who may not have had the most settled lives at home. Many who had struggled with aspects of school went on to successful careers, some in sports coaching. “The results we were getting for PE were some of the best in the country, and that came from building the same culture I’d experienced at Aberdeen – one of high expectations where everyone knew exactly what was expected of them,” says Mr Gardner.
The clarity of purpose shown by Sir Alex has stayed with Mr Gardner, who went on to play for many clubs, including Oxford United, Ayr United and Airdrieonians.
While other clubs’ training might involve endless running or players battering shots indiscriminately at a goalkeeper, Sir Alex would put players into twos or threes, so that they could work on highly specific parts of their game. “He didn’t give too much information and you were never unsure what to do before returning to the group. Every single training session had a purpose – it ran so fluently, the pace was fantastic and you always left on a total high. It was revolutionary,” says Mr Gardner.
Sir Alex’s approach convinced him that the work of schools should not be overcomplicated, and that education jargon should be avoided as much as possible. “If your message is clear and simple, people will get it,” he says.
Mr Gardner’s old boss, who recently published a book on leadership, also showed the strength of acknowledging his own failings. “He was always the first to take it on the chin when things went wrong. He’d say, ‘I shouldn’t have played you,’ or, ‘I was asking too much.’ He was fair like that,” says the depute headteacher.
The ‘hairdryer treatment’
If, however, Sir Alex believed that someone had fallen short, he tended to react with less equanimity: “That was the ‘hairdryer treatment’ – the cups getting chucked and broken above your head. Certain aspects [of Sir Alex’s methods] you couldn’t do in school without the director of education being on the phone within five minutes!”
Parental involvement is high on the agenda of many schools and Mr Gardner believes that the former football manager was unusually willing to take parents’ views seriously. On one occasion, his mother was unhappy about a letter saying that 16-year-old Lee would live in unspecified digs. “My mum was on the phone to him to say, ‘Look, this isnae good enough – I need to know exactly where my boy’s going,’ and he phoned her back to say, ‘You’re right, this is something that we need to look at.’”
Sir Alex believed that too much free time led to bad choices, so idle players would have to polish boots and wipe down stadium seats. Mr Gardner backs up the famous stories about Sir Alex dragging errant players out of nightclubs, and making them babysit first-teamers’ children on Saturday nights. “It was instilled in you that regardless of this privileged life, you’ve still got to do the dirty work. It’s like schools trying to express to kids that you don’t get something for nothing,” he says. “The expectations that Sir Alex met were incredible, and you strived to meet them.”
Sir Alex’s lessons for schools
Sir Alex Ferguson’s lessons for teachers and school leaders, according to one of his former players:
Set very clear goals, uncluttered by jargon.
Admit it when you get things wrong.
Do not set the same work for every student; tailor learning to personal strengths and needs.
Know who needs encouragement and who requires sterner treatment.
Allow no idle moments.
Keep parents involved.